“Be careful. This isn’t a good place for you.”
That is what my Uber driver said to me as he dropped me off at a public middle school in Miami Gardens, FL. I am a twenty-something blonde and blue-eyed White woman, and clearly in the minority. I was there to do a site visit and check-in with administrators and educators who were using a nutrition education program I manage. Obviously, his statement left me a little unsettled, but concern about my own safety quickly dissipated and concern for the wellbeing of America’s public school children heightened.
I patiently waited for the Principal to meet with me, silently observing the inner workings of this school community. Posters featuring Black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. lined the display case, carefully preserved, offering words of wisdom and inspiration for all those who pass by. As I waited in the main office I was greeted with more “good mornings” from staff and students than I have ever received anywhere else. This school is not a scary place.
The community that surrounds the school may have high rates of violence (6.3 in Miami Gardens compared to 4.6 in Florida and 3.8 nationwide), but it is a safe-haven for the neighborhood’s children. The new Principal has seen to that.
The new Principal was assigned to this school, on the brink of receivership, with the task of boosting test scores to keep the school run by the district. If the school maintains its “F” rating for the third year in a row, then the state will take it over. The Principal keeps a list of last year’s standardized test averages on display in front of her desk as a daily reminder to persevere. Her predictions for this year’s test scores will bring the school to a “C” rating, a significant feat when faced with so many obstacles.
Standardized tests do not set students up for success. Test outcomes drive focus within classrooms, discouraging skill or knowledge development that does not fit neatly into reading, writing, or math boxes. A school district that is truly focused on the whole-child knows that these strict foci are not the keys to student success, especially when test results drive school funding and teacher salaries. Students from neighborhoods with high rates of violence and poverty mean that they are faced with numerous personal obstacles even before they set foot in a classroom.
The Miami Gardens middle school Principal knows this. In her first year she is working to raise rates of school breakfast participation, raise literacy levels in creative ways, and build a sense of community through events and programs like a social media campaign that encourages healthy eating and a field day.
Students are distracted, hungry, and experience high rates of administrator and teacher turnover due to burnout and low pay. How can we expect students or teachers to succeed without proper support? We need more services and opportunities for them, not less.
Tying school funding and curricula to test results is doing everyone a disservice. We need stronger leadership for public school education from the top down. Betsy DeVos is not a wise choice for our nation’s education secretary, but in the interim, leaders like the Principal at this Miami Gardens middle school give me hope that even when facing every possible obstacle, hard work and compassion can lift disadvantaged students up and create opportunities for success, no matter where you come from.